Utah’s drought bad, but could get worse without a wet winter

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While this year’s long, hot summer has already rung up a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars in drought-related impacts, another winter of light snowfall could take current water concerns and mitigation costs to unprecedented levels in the year ahead.

That was the general consensus of the Utah Drought Review and Reporting Committee on Wednesday. The meeting itself is a rare happening — triggered by a state statute that requires it to convene when drought conditions reach a critical level.

It requires reporting from numerous state agencies on impacts related to drought conditions. A Utah Department of Natural Resources spokesman said it was the first time in about a decade that circumstances required the committee to meet.

National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney, who participated in the meeting, said a “wild two months of weather” in late 2017, early 2018 where some areas of the state received precipitation at rates 300-400 percent above average, had replenished reservoirs sufficiently to carry over. But now, as one of the hottest summers on record comes to a close, the severity of a hot and dry weather pattern that goes back to 2012 could be setting the state up for a very challenging 2019.

McInerney said how the coming winter plays out will set the stage for the level of concerns focused on water, or the lack of it, in the year ahead.

“When we look at drought in Utah, we’ve had years that were much worse than this one,” McInerney said. “The key is, we’ve had very dry weather from 2012 to 2016 and, really, 2017 except for two months. Now, we’re at the end of this summer and we’ve used the majority of those stores in the reservoirs … and we’re going into 2019 with low reservoirs and very hot, dry conditions at the start of fall.”

Judy Watanabe, deputy director of Utah’s Division of Emergency Management, said six counties have declared drought-related disasters and “continue to renew those declarations.” Those counties are Wayne, Grand, Emery, San Juan, Box Elder and Carbon.

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